Sunday, 15 January 2012

Worshipping What Our Hands Have Made

I will pronounce my judgments on my people because of their wickedness in forsaking me, in burning incense to other gods and in worshipping what their hands have made.
Idol worship is a common theme in the Old Testament part of the Bible. It was a common practice among the nations who surrounded Israel, and it seems the Jews just couldn't resist joining in! The inevitable consequence of worshipping something though, is that you begin to become like the thing you worship, and so the Jews quickly took on other, associated practices, and forgot God's good laws of justice and compassion. In the words of the writer of the book of Kings:
They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the LORD had ordered them, “Do not do as they do,” ... They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal. They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They ... sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the LORD ... 
Most people in the Western world no longer worship idols in the literal sense of that word, but we can still be just as guilty of "worshipping what [our] hands have made". Money is a primary example:

Money is a man-made invention, and it is a strange and curious thing. In and of itself, it has no value - it is valuable only because of what it represents.

If you consider that there are a finite amount of goods and services currently available in the world, then money is like a permission slip that gives you access to a certain quantity of those resources. These "permission slips" can be physical, e.g. bank notes or coins, or electronic, e.g. the money in your bank account. Most of the money in the world today is electronic.

Much of the world is currently in the grip of an economic crisis, but this crisis isn't a crisis of resources. There are a similar amount of resources available now as there were before the crisis began*. This is a crisis of "permission slips"!  It's about how many permission slips there are in the world and who should be allowed to have them.

We often talk about the "financial crisis" as if it's something unavoidable that we are now caught in the grip of and can do little to change, but it's a crisis in the system that we created! If the system isn't working then it seems to me that we ought to be doing something to change the system. This is what people like Occupy London have been campaigning for.

There currently seem to be two main competing and also partially complementing approaches which are being followed in an attempt to "solve" the financial crisis:
  1. Borrow more money:
    This is what the UK and other governments have done to bail out the banks. This is what the UK central bank has effectively done through the process of "quantitive easing". This is what the  European central bank has done in order to increase the size of it's "bailout fund".

    This approach involves playing the system by its own rules, and stores up more problems for the future. It doesn't make us masters of the system, rather it deepens our indebtedness to it.

  2. Austerity measures:
    This is about saving money by reducing government spending, so that the government can afford to pay off its debts. While it sounds like a prudent approach it is damaging in 2 ways:

    1. In the process of cutting spending, it is often the poor and the disadvantaged who suffer the most. But why is this necessary when the amount of resources in the world hasn't changed? It is only the distribution of permission slips that has become a problem!

    2. If the government doesn't spend money to stimulate its economy, economic output will fall, tax revenues will go down and the government will have even less money to pay off its debts!
Either way we are caught in a trap of slavery to this system that we have created and which now constitutes our view of reality.

This system has worked well for us in many respects but it is not a system rooted in justice or fairness. It is a system exploited by the rich and powerful and designed - in many respects - for their benefit. It is a system that tends to funnel "permission slips" upwards to those who already have them and increases the gap between the haves and the have nots. It is a system which has enabled those with the right kind of knowledge and opportunity to exploit those who do the hard work of creating useful things, and to get rich at their expense.

It is a system that we created, and that we worship, because of the riches it has bestowed on us in the past. And it is a system we are now enslaved to because it has reformed us in its image, and we can no longer imagine a different world.

Finally, this system that we have created and exploited, and which now exploits us, has massive consequences for our children. Here in the UK their economic prospects are already far bleaker than ours ever were:

  • Those who want a higher education will start their working lives with enormous debts, having had little or no financial support for their studies.
  • Due to rising property prices, the average age for first time house buyers could hit 40 by the end of the decade!
  • Then of course there is the enormous national debt, which all of our children will inherit.

We may not be literally "sacrific[ing our] sons and daughters in the fire", like the Israelites used to do, but are the consequences really all that different...?

* New goods have been manufactured and/or dug out of the ground, some consumables have been used up - e.g. food, oil, coal etc. - but the differences are not that significant for this discussion.

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